The Athabasca River: from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park to the Arctic Ocean, a journey

Posted July 31st, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on The Athabasca River: from the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park to the Arctic Ocean, a journey

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish
Athabasca_at_Brule_Lake

From Jasper National Park

It runs some 1231 km, 765 miles, from the Columbia Icefields in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains northeast across boreal forest (the lungs of North America), through Ft. McMurray and Ft. McKay to Lake Athabasca, which crosses the border with Saskatchewan. Its waters mingle with other rivers, discharging into the Mackenzie River and by way of it all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

It also runs through one of the most toxic industrial wastelands in the world. Unfortunately for the river and the forests, Mother Nature put down on this land vast quantities of tar sands. Unfortunately for the river and the forests – and the human and other living communities in the vicinity – humans became clever enough to figure out a way to squeeze the oil out of the sands, process it, then ship it off by way of pipelines and freight trains to help fuel the engines of our ever-expanding industrial civilization.

Athabasca_Falls_2005-06-11

Athabasca Falls

Come September, I will join with six others on a two-week pilgrimage along the river starting at the Columbia Icefield all the way to Ft. McMurray, the heart of the industry, and Ft. McKay, the heart of one of the First Nation communities whose lives have been poisoned and turned upside-down by it.

The point of this trip is not to focus merely on the oil tar sands industry, which is certainly receiving at long last some much deserved scrutiny and notoriety, but to see it in context, to see it from the vantage point of an entire ecosystem – and a magnificent one –  in order to understand better, to appreciate more, to enter more fully into, the ecological reality of the river and the forest, and the impacts of the industry on these eco-communities, the whole of these communities of sentient and non-sentient beings.

alberta mapAnd then to see the even wider context. For beyond the impacts on Alberta – the stripping away of forests, the contamination of the river and air, the destruction of natural habitats – are the direct connections being made via pipeline, rail and barge networks across North America, the impact of the industry on climate change which affects us all, and how we are all implicated by our way of life that depends on greater and greater ecological destruction to get at the remaining fossil fuels not yet extracted and burned by us humans.

We will visit the oil tar sands region, yes. But we will spend much of our time witnessing to and listening to the river and forest. We think it important to focus not on mere protest, but in a positive way on the magnificence of the ecosystems created over millions and millions of years by this living planet, so that we become another voice, another expression, of what that is, what it means, how it is the only reason why we exist at all.

Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

Boreal forest and river. Photo: Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program

We emerged from this planet’s natural genius evolved over a few billion years until the conditions were right for that emergence – and we are rapidly undermining the very conditions that gave birth to us, that allowed us to come into being in the first place.

Not a nice way to show gratitude toward one’s Mother.

The purpose of this journey is to bear witness. The purpose of this journey is to create a narrative of the river and forest, of all that it passes through, how it is being treated, what it is becoming. The purpose is to provide a larger context for the story of the oil tar sands industry, why it exists, and what feeds it. The purpose is to come back and share that story with whomever will listen, whoever might open their hearts to receive it. The purpose of this journey is also to help provide support to the growing movement of people who are prepared to shed the unsustainable ways of life supported by this industry (and others as destructive, like fracking) for the sake of the rivers and the forests and the living beings, humans and others, that this planet needs for life to continue to thrive.

athabasca tar sand industry expansion - NASA Earth Observatory

Click to view expansion of tars sand exploitation 1984-2011. Source: NASA Earth Observatory

I want to return and be very busy – writing, speaking, doing workshops, and more, to share this experience. For some time now I have pondered how I might be able to use this SEH project to make a more concrete contribution to the work to re-examine our entire way of life, based as it is in the increasingly destructive economy of extraction, production, consumption, and waste, an economy that is crashing into the limits of the planet and the limits of human’s capacity to adapt to the breakdown and poisoning of our ecological communities. I believe that the transformation required of us now rests in not only looking at the destruction, but also at the beauty, the wonder, the magnificence of creation – so that we fully understand what is being lost and what this ultimately means for us.

The pilgrimage is being supported by the co-sponsorship of several faith communities and a number of small donors. Your donations are welcome and needed (and also tax deductible) so that we can create some sustained program work as an outcome of the pilgrimage through the remainder of this year and into 2014. It is in this period that we will be confronted with some crucial decisions about pipelines, freight and barge transhipment, and more. Your support will help us make our contribution towards the work of public education on the issues at stake here and the implications for our future on this planet.

We are headed into some pretty interesting times, we humans. It will call for the best in us – and the most creative – as we work to hold together what is now being torn apart. I am not out to save the planet, because it does not require me to save it. It will go on creating, evolving, recreating, regenerating new forms of life under whatever conditions it has to deal with. What needs saving is not the planet – it’s us.

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